Video games and violence: corrupting the minds of our youth…or not.

Mass Effect Screenshot

A screenshot from the BioWare game Mass Effect. “Love in the time of Reapers”

In November 2007, video game developer BioWare released the first part of its Mass Effect Trilogy series of games. It was met with critical acclaim and financial success. It was a fantastic game, and it seemed to have it all: The sci-fi epic combined the fluid aspects of a shooter with the depth of a role-playing game, giving the player choices at every corner and creating many possible endings. The voice acting was impeccable, the story was incredibly well-crafted and the universe in which it all took place was deep and timeless.

Simply put, the game was a digital masterpiece. But all of that was lost on some.

In January 2008, a Fox News anchor claimed that Mass Effect includes scenes of “full digital nudity” and gives the player the “ability to engage in graphic sex,” when in fact, there are only peripheral shots of the characters engaging in a consensual, loving sexual encounter.

It is important to note that this encounter can only come about if the player successfully cultivates a complex relationship with the other character, and it is a non-interactive cut-scene, not a situation where you can “decide what, exactly, is going to happen between the two of them,” as the anchor stated.

Neither the psychology specialist interviewed or the anchor had played the game, as they both readily admitted. Yet, they had been led to believe that the game included graphic sex, so they commented on it as informed experts. When an expert from the gaming industry – who had played the game – attempted to correct them, he was quickly railroaded.

The psychology specialist asserted that this game and its sexually suggestive content was damaging the minds of youth.The anchor stated that the game is marketed towards teens and young adults, which is patently false: The game received an ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) rating of Mature, which means that in most states, it cannot be purchased by anyone under 21.

Fox News had a specific audience in mind, and the anchor and her guest were given information – that there is a sexual scene in this video game – and took from that this grossly portrayed miscommunication. They mentioned what worked for them, and adapted and modified the real information into something that was advantageous for an interesting story. They described the game as “Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas”, which is sheer sensationalism.

EA, the publisher of the game, sent Fox News a letter pointing out all of their errors and asking for an apology.

Unfortunately, this was not the first, and will certainly not be the last, time that video game content is sensationalized and blamed for the behaviour of a group of disturbed individuals. This September, with the release of Grand Theft Auto V, more than one news story broke about the game leading to violence. A college freshman went on a rampage in a stolen truck and claimed he wanted to “live the game in real life.” The game was blamed for the man’s behaviour, though it was found later that he hadn’t even played it yet.

Another story of an eight-year-old boy shooting his grandmother after playing Grand Theft Auto has made the rounds. Most articles about the shooting blame the game for causing the violence. Very few of them mention that the eight-year-old was left unsupervised in a home with access to a loaded weapon, because that’s a whole other can of worms that most media doesn’t want to open. Grand Theft Auto is also a mature-rated game, which raises the question: why was an eight-year-old allowed to play it?

A big deal has been made about the fact that the Sandy Hook shooter played a lot of violent video games. Apparently, the media has subscribed to the correlation-is-causation fallacy. It presents the story as if the games caused the violence, not giving any credence to the chance that Adam Lanza may have had a predisposition to violence and that is why he enjoyed the games so much.

Video games have taken over the position of movies and television, and even books before them, of societal problem scapegoat. They will probably remain there, until they are better understood by society at large.

Most of the people who jump on the video-games-cause-violence bandwagon have never played one, save maybe Pong or Mario Kart. Games have evolved with technology, and with this evolution has come the ability to tell a better story and create a unique universe. Video games have become an artform, as horrified as my mother would be to hear me say that.

Of course, their stories can have a profound impact on the people that play them, just as film does, just as books do. But sensationalizing news stories to create the big, bad world of video games seems to me to be immature and uninformed.

Enjoy this video of the Fox News Mass Effect fiasco.

Disclaimer: I find the Grand Theft Auto series to be particularly over-the-top chauvinistic and disgusting. I also find the games quite boring. But I gave them a chance, and they didn’t make me drive over any prostitutes.

1 Comment

  • Joseph Keller
    Reply November 26, 2014

    Joseph Keller

    I remember when that whole Mass Effect ‘controversy’ happened. It’s really amazing when you actually play the game and realize it’s not even remotely close to what they describe on Fox News. Makes for a pretty good example of how stupid journalists can look when it’s clear they didn’t do basic research on the topic.

    Great job explaining an issue that people outside of the gaming bubble still have a hard time understanding.

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